Delivery Technology

Delivery Technology: Tubes, Rockets, Drones, Autonomous Vehicles and Star Trek Replicators

What do we want? Convenience and reliability (trust). When do we want it? Now. How much do we want to pay? Not much. The market requirements have not changed, but the approaches used by delivery firms continue to evolve through the application of technology, and the choices available to consumers are increasing.

Pneumatic Tubes

Under the streets of New York City are tubes that once rushed letters from central postal sorting sites to different locations within the city. In a version of IBM’s Smart City research, this could re-invented.

Rocket Mail

Hard to believe, but the Post Office actually experimented with delivering mail by rocket. After all, the Post Office was charged with using the fastest means available to expedite delivery, and rockets were the big thing in science for a while.


So now it is drones delivering all sorts of things. Not like the warfighting drones descended from rockets, but more like the toys we once played with, now grown up a bit and put to work.


Once most city routes were walking routes. Now, the Postal Service manages one of the largest fleets of delivery vehicles in the nation. Delivery firms across the world, including foreign posts, have been experimenting with all sorts of vehicles – motorized bicycles, Segways, and more.  Recent attention has been focused on autonomous vehicles.

Information Systems and Social Media

Whatever vehicle they use, delivery people are armed with ever more sophisticated technology, tracking letters, packages, and their own performance.  Some are permitted to “beat the system” by applying their experience to improve computer-generated routing information.  Drivers are increasingly connected to their home base, to their delivery items, and to customers through social media and other technology.

Non-Traditional Delivery Locations

Once, you were allowed to receive delivery at a place and time of the delivery firm’s choice. These choices are multiplying, as are the number and type of enterprises offering different kinds of delivery services.

3D Printing

Of course, we haven’t even begun to address the potential of 3D printing and other technologies to change the nature of demand for delivery service.

What it All Means

The “last mile” – the last stand of traditional postal services – is likely to change significantly. Let’s just think about drones and delivery as an example.

Imagine sitting outside on a sunny day and thinking about how a new pair of sunglasses would make this experience more enjoyable. Now instead of just wishing you had those sunglasses, you pulled out your smartphone to order them for immediate delivery. Within a couple of hours, a drone would delivery this right to you, wherever you were.

Several firms are testing some version of this kind of service. In Australia, Zookal has been set up to deliver textbooks and other material to students on a university campus. In South Africa, another firm used small drones to deliver refreshments to fans at a rugby match. There are undoubtedly other examples.

Traditional delivery services are an area ripe for disruption. Drone delivery, while it faces significant difficulties in large scale implementation, may spark ideas that capture the imagination of entrepreneurs who see innovation as a key to growth, a better society, and profits.

Drones, or any other innovation, must bring the consumer an experience that is both convenient and cost effective. Many such ideas, while entertaining, may not meet these criteria. For example, current drones apparently can only carry a very limited load. Command and control may be difficult, especially if multiple firms are flying drones all over the place, and imagine the impact of a sudden summer thunderstorm on all these little man-made birds. Then, of course, there are privacy and legislative issues that will have to be overcome.

The point is not that drones can or cannot be a viable option for delivery. Any technological innovation will have to meet these tests. The point is that every year it seems someone figures out a new way to provide something better than it has been provided before. Disruption is a way of life and delivery services will not be immune. The industry should be thinking beyond incremental changes to traditional services. For example, reducing a day of delivery across the board to save costs seems so last century. Recent research suggests the existence of “Super Zips” – collections of contiguous ZIPS where income (and mail volume) is significantly higher than average. Why subject these potentially high margin routes to the same cost-cutting? Instead, develop additional services to satisfy market demand – including the application of disruptive new technologies where the investment might be warranted.

By Kent Smith

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2 Replies

  1. Bryan Klepacki

    Amazon really appears to be a game changer here as they have recently announced the development of an Amazon Drone.

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